“It’s funny. Sometimes I feel like I could burst into tears at any moment in a given day but–but most days, most days all of it just washes over me, missing me entirely and I’m sat at the bottom trying to grasp at things that should have belonged to me–that were meant for me but were never mine to begin with and I can never decide what’s worse: to waste away, parched in the middle of the desert or to feel my lungs fill up and give way and drown in the ocean.”
Her index finger circles the rim of her glass and he wonders at the eloquence displayed despite the inebriated state she’s currently in. There is no doubt, of course, that had it not been for the alcohol and lack of options by way of Friday night companions, the two of them would most certainly have not even bothered with a nod hello, let alone an entire drunken philosophical monologue on mental well-being. He briefly contemplates the extent to which her sober self would regret this conversation come morning but decides that perhaps it wouldn’t be that bad. Maybe this meant they were friends now. He would like that.
By the third drink, she gives up on ridiculing him out of his firm refusal to consume alcohol and by the time she downs her fifth, he’s telling her about moving to the city and taking up the job at the University not entirely sure whether she’s listening but reassured by the occasional nods and the way her eyes flick over to his face every now and then.
Her shoulders have set themselves into a state of sadness they usually never betrayed and his heart constricts in a way not unfamiliar to him and the echoes of a childhood spent grieving over the sadness of those most dear to him faintly reverberate through his skull.
Silence falls over the two of them as raucous laughter and the clink of glasses and hissed retorts surround them and she finishes her drink before standing up. “You’re all right after all, Collins”, she decrees before the two of them stand up–her surprisingly steady despite the staggering amount of alcohol coursing through her veins–and walk out the door into the cool night. He walks her to her apartment and they talk of college courses and mundane things and just as he bids her goodnight and turns away, she asks him whether he’s had dinner yet. He reminds her that he would have had dinner at the earlier establishment had it not been for her inviting herself to his table and then proceeding to drown the night in fiery drinks that burnt your throat and dulled your senses and killed your brain cells and she tells him to shut up about the pitfalls of alcohol and whether it would kill him to just answer the goddamn question. He smiles and says that yes he would like something to eat and so they go to the diner around the corner.
Amidst the sips of coffee as they wait for their food to arrive, he asks her whether she’d always wanted to teach and she laughs, and it isn’t entirely bitter but he worries for her anyway, “Not exactly. When I was a kid I used to want to be a dancer.” And he finds that is isn’t hard to imagine her gracefully soaring across the stage and that sends a jolt of surprise through his body. “What about you? You always dream of teaching Tennyson to college freshmen?”
“More or less. Besides what else do you do with a PhD in Literature if not teach?”, he contemplates telling her about his mother and the stories she read to him and Jake, sparking his love for the literary world, but figures that if this really is a newfound friendship, there would be plenty of time for past tragedies later. She senses him holding back but leaves it at that and nods and then the food is here and they dissolve into grateful sighs as the hot food makes their way down their throat.
“You know”, she interrupts their relative silence, chewing thoughtfully, clearly less drunk with some solid sustenance in her belly, “You’re not as boring as I originally thought–or as stand-offish. It’s actually been a nice night”
He snorts, “Stand-offish? Really, you’re far too quick, and altogether too harsh with your judgement. And yeah it has, I’m glad I ran into you, though still surprised you sat at my table, you didn’t exactly seem to like me much if our earlier interactions were any indication”
She doesn’t miss the question in his voice and shrugs, “You were a familiar face and I needed to not be alone today”. Her tone discourages further questions so he simply nods and continues stuffing his face. “But I’m glad I ran into you too”, she adds more kindly and he smiles.
By the time they’re done its nearly 2 am and they’re back at the steps to her apartment. “Well, goodnight, Irina Kozloff. This wasn’t half bad.”
She laughs dryly before looking up at him quizzically, “Why do you always address me by my full name?”
“I don’t know…it never occurred to me to not do otherwise, I guess. You intimidate me. Slightly”
She laughs again, “If I had a nickel for every time someone said that to me. Call me Irina.”
“In that case, call me Steve. Goodnight Irina”
“Goodnight Co–Steve”, she smiles and he hails a cab back to his place, barely managing to kick off his boots before falling into his bed. He briefly raises his head to his phone to check for emails and finds one from Jake, too brief and too vague for his liking but at least he’s all right.
The events of the night still fresh in his mind, for the first time since he moved, he drifts off to sleep gently basking in the after effects of a genuine possibility…
…he could use a friend.
Irina opens her door and walks to her kitchen for a drink of water. And tenses. Something’s not right. Somethi–
“Hello, Nina. I’ve missed you, darling.”